Some years ago in Franklin County, North Carolina, in the days when most houses were unlocked all day and only a very few men went out to public work, Wade Faulkner set out to kill some hogs. He stepped out of his back door and settled his cap on his head. He sniffed the air and caught a whiff of wood smoke from his neighbor’s kitchen, then took a look at the sun rising behind a patch of herringbone clouds in the east. Cold air was coming in from the north, and with a slight nod, he indicated his belief that the weather would hold cold and fair for a few days.
Farmers in these parts had been killing hogs in mid-January for generations, and most barns held a tin-bottomed vat for scalding and a come-along and chain for bleeding out. Faulkner’s boys were grown and gone, and he had hired Thomas Crudup for the day for $50 cash money and the liver and lights for his wife. Wade no longer made his own sausages, so it was likely that Tom would leave with the chitlings as well.
First thing, Wade backed his old Farmall out of the shed to dig a shallow trench for the fire. He had stacked a pile of dry branches nearby, and before Tom showed up, he had a good fire going. With Tom’s help, he hooked a chain to the vat and pulled it over the trench. While he put the tractor away, Tom screwed a piece of hose onto the hand pump and began to fill the vat with water. That done and the fire stoked, the men stopped a while for coffee and yesterday’s biscuits.
Over in the pen, the two ten-month old Yorkshire pigs snuffled and grunted at the fence. Castrated at an early age, their primary interest now was food, and they hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. They recognized Wade as their caretaker and thought of him as not perhaps kindly but certainly reliable. This morning, the change in their routine had left them puzzled and, for the first time in their lives, concerned in a muzzy sort of way about their future.
When the water in the vat was steaming, Wade went into the house for his .22 rifle. It was generally understood that the best way to kill a hog was to shoot it in the head, then to cut the jugular vein so it could bleed out. Then the carcass would be dragged over to the vat and plopped down into the hot water, first on one side and then on the other, to loosen the bristles. Meanwhile, a sharpened stick or an iron rod would be inserted into the space between the tendon and the bone just above the hoof on both hind legs so that the 350 pounds of dead pig could be pulled up with the come-along to hang head-down from a branch on a handy tree. From that undignified position, the former hog could be scraped and gutted in preparation for butchering. An old washtub would do fine to catch the innards.
Wade took his position near the vat, and on his signal, Thomas, armed with an old hunting knife, opened the gate to let the first hog out of the pen. It looked like the shot was a good one, but it must have been off-center because when Tom threw himself onto the animal to slit its throat, the pig was still kicking. That’s when things began to go sideways, with the pig squealing and Tom shouting, “Good Lord, Mr. Wade, I done kilt myself.”
There was plenty of blood, but what belonged to the pig and what belonged to Tom was anybody’s guess. What was certain was that it had not been a clean kill, and for that Wade was sorry. He had been doing this job all his adult life and never had he seen a mess like this. Laying the rifle aside and hitching up his pants, he waded into the fray and pulled Tom off the weakening but still thrashing hog. He could feel Tom shaking worse than the pig.
Closer inspection revealed that Tom was not in fact dying but had cut a long gash down his forearm when the hog had kicked him in the nether regions.
“Let’s get this fixed up, Tom. We still got us a lot to do today. Come on in the kitchen.”
The two men had known each other since they were boys, stalking deer together before they were old enough to hunt, and shying stones at bullfrogs down at the pond on summer afternoons. But in all those years Thomas had never been inside Faulkner’s house, and now he stood on the threshold, pressing his handkerchief over the cut in his arm.
“Come on over here to the table,” Wade said, “and take a seat while I get a bandage. That dang fool hog’ll have to take care of himself for a minute.”
He tossed the wounded man a dish towel and wandered off down the hall while Thomas took a look around the kitchen. His wife had been in the house a few years ago to clean when Mrs. Faulkner had taken to her bed with the cancer, and she had told him how bright and cheery the whole house had been then. She’d talked about the printed cherries on the kitchen curtains and the shiny red and white linoleum rug, like a checkerboard on the kitchen floor, she’d said. Now Thomas saw those curtains hanging limp and a path worn into the linoleum from the back door to the sink. You couldn’t say the room was dirty, but it was clear to him that it hadn’t seen a woman’s touch for a while.
While Thomas, who sometimes had to fight for a place at his own dinner table, was contemplating what a man’s life would be without a wife and with all his children off on their own, Wade came back to the kitchen with a bottle of antiseptic and a roll of gauze bandages. With a sure hand he cleaned the cut while Thomas winced as the antiseptic did its job, then wrapped the area and taped down the gauze. He stood back to look at his work, noting the way the bandage stood out against Thomas’s dark skin. But there was no sign of red seeping through, and the men rolled down their sleeves, hunched into their jackets and headed back out into the yard.
During the twenty minutes or so they had been in the house, the first hog had indeed expired, and judging by the mess around him had in fact had a good bleed. Without ceremony, he was dragged to the vat, scalded and hung up for scraping and butchering. The second execution of the day proceeded without incident, and Thomas did take the intestines from both pigs home to his wife, along with the livers and lights. He left Wade beside the barn, along with the two hogs swaying from their singletrees, figuring the best way to portion out the meat for himself and his sons.
That night, as Wade lay in the bed he had shared with his wife, where his children had been conceived, and where he had said his last good-byes to the woman he had respected and protected for almost forty years, he said his prayers. He began as always, with the Lord’s Prayer, but as often happened when he had something on his mind, his prayer turned seamlessly into a one-sided conversation with his wife.
Mary, he thought, I never expected to see a Black man at your table. It was just Tom – I’ve known him all my life, and he’s a good man. But even when Essie came to help while you were sick, she never sat down at the kitchen table like she’d been invited. I don’t know why I did it, Mary. I guess I didn’t even think, what with that cut he had and all. My people must be spinning in their graves. And as he pondered the choice words his mother would have had for him, he slid unawares into sleep.
Later that week, Wade answered a knock at his back door to find Thomas standing there holding a towel-covered dish between his big hands.
“Essie’s sent over this mess of collards, Mr. Wade, to thank you for binding up my arm.”
“There’s no need for that, Tom, but you tell Essie for me how glad I am to see some greens this time of year. How’s that cut doing?”
“Healing up just fine. You got that meat all cut and salted?”
“Finished up yesterday. But we’re letting the heat out, standing here in the doorway. Come in the house. I got the game on the radio.”
Thomas came into the warm kitchen and set his bowl next to the stove, then pulled off his cap and stood fiddling with the brim. Wade watched him for a minute, then shook his head.
“What the hell! Come on in the front room, Tom. You want a beer?”
NC State was playing Duke at Reynolds Coliseum, and by halftime the two men were settled back into their chairs, beers in hand, tossing out the occasional remark when the game really got going. During the break, Wade turned the radio down and asked, “When did you start calling me Mr. Wade, Tom?”
“When you started paying me, Mr. Wade.”
Faulkner chewed on that for a while. It seemed to him that at one time, he and Tom had been together whenever they hadn’t been in school.
“You still got that old arrowhead?”
“It’s sitting right there in the bowl on my dresser, along with my keys,” Tom said and laughed. Wade laughed along with him.
“That was some coincidence, you finding that arrowhead like that just when we’d been talking about those Indians.”
“Sure was,” Tom said. He looked Wade in the eye. “A real miracle, some would say.”
Wade remembered how he and Tom had argued about those folk over toward Hollister, the ones Wade’s people called Ishuahs, saying how they were what was left of a proud Indian nation that had dwindled after the white men came. Tom insisted they called themselves “Issues” and were the descendants of free-issued Negroes, those who had been manumitted by their masters before the war. Lots of blue eyes and pale, wavy hair over there, Tom had said, because of what the masters did with some of their slaves. That’s why the Issues didn’t mix with the colored families, because they considered themselves better. And besides, Tom had concluded, whoever heard about Indians around here?
The early on the morning after, Wade had taken the white quartz arrowhead his uncle had given him and set off for the woods. When he got to a clearing where the boys had made a “camp,” he brushed the leaf litter off a big rock that humped up out of the dirt like a turtle’s back in the pond, then placed the arrowhead right in the middle. Later that day, when he and Tom had gone exploring, he had worked things around so they ended up on the path to the clearing.
It hadn’t taken a minute for Tom to spy that old arrowhead, glinting there in a stray sunbeam. Wade had never seen his friend’s eyes grow so big, and it was a true satisfaction to hear him say that, by golly, there must have been Indians in these woods after all.
“Those were good days,” Wade said softly.
The game was on again, but Wade’s attention wandered. How had it happened that they felt almost like strangers now? It must have been high school with Tom leaving to ride the bus to the Negro school across the county and Wade’s time taken up with sports, then dating. Summers, he’d heard, Tom had a job in town while Wade’s daddy kept him busy with the tobacco. God, he had hated topping tobacco, with his arms aching and that ‘bacco gum all over his hands.
Well, they’d both made new friends, and they’d both married and raised their families. Wade had an idea that it was something like a double exposure now, with their two different stories occupying the same space and neither one knowing much about the other. But he had to admit that it felt real nice sitting here with Tom Crudup, listening to State getting whupped. It felt like coming home.
“You want another beer, Tom?” and he headed to the kitchen.
Things went along like this into the spring when the days were getting longer. Once a week or so, Tom would come to Wade’s door with something from Essie’s kitchen – a plate of fried chicken, maybe, or a bowl of beans. Then the two friends would sit a while talking, maybe listening to a game, maybe just sharing the fading light of the evening. Wade came to treasure these visits, even storing up some of his thoughts to try out on Tom, the way he used to do with Mary. He noticed that this gave his daily routine a flavor that he’d almost forgotten, that somehow it made his day into something more than a list of chores to get through.
On an April morning after one of Tom’s visits, Wade set out down the road to pick up a carton of milk at Preacher Ball’s store. His headlamps bounced back from the fog that still lay in the low spots, and he felt his way along until he pulled up at the store and parked his truck next to the four or five others sitting there like a bunch of old men, clicking and sighing as they cooled off. As the screen door slammed behind him, he took in the little group of his neighbors standing around the coffee urn to share their opinions about the weather, the likelihood of making a decent crop this year, and the latest price of springing heifers. Wade got his milk, paid Mrs. Ball and walked on over to join them.
As he got closer, the men fell quiet and sort of knotted up closer together. Nobody looked at Wade, who got his coffee in silence, then stood there sipping and blowing on the hot liquid. After a moment, one of the men offered, “Morning, Wade.”
“Morning, John,” Wade replied. “Anything wrong?”
A few of the men shifted their weight, and one of them reached for a little more coffee. Finally, John said, “We didn’t think you’d be wanting to drink coffee with us any more now that you’re spending so much time socializing with that old colored boy and his folks. Thought you’d give up on white folks.”
“I’m the same man I’ve always been, John.”
One by one, the farmers wadded up their coffee cups and threw them into the trash bin, then waved to Mrs. Ball and climbed into their trucks.
“See you around, Wade,” John said and followed the others out. For a moment, Wade stood there, trying to understand what had just happened. These men were his friends. Without ever having given it much thought, he had always relied on their good will, had always thought he could depend on them. Now, still feeling a little disoriented, Wade walked to his truck and saw that the last of the fog had burned away.
Next time Tom came by, he joined Wade at the hog pen to have a look at this year’s feeder pigs. Together, they leaned on the top fence rail, looking down at the little porkers trotting back and forth, nosing through their trough, then lying down in the sun, back to back. To a young pig with a topped-up trough, life was a simple, happy thing.
Finally, with his eyes still on the pigs, Tom said, “What’s wrong, Wade? You’re mighty quiet this morning.”
Wade lifted his foot up to the bottom rail. “It’s nothing. Just something somebody said down at the store. Sort of sticks in my craw.”
Tom raised his cap and settled it back on his head, waiting to hear what more his friend might have to say.
Still watching the pigs that had now dozed off together, Wade took a deep breath. “Look here, Tom, this don’t have anything to do with you and Essie personally. But these old boys around here don’t like my spending so much time with your family. They all but said that straight out when I saw them at Preacher Ball’s. I’m damned if I know what I ought to do.”
Tom nodded. “I been waiting for this,” he said. “Let’s go in and get a cup of coffee.”
After the men fixed their coffee, Tom looked across the table at Wade who was staring into his mug like he expected the answers to life’s questions to come floating up to the surface.
“You surely do have a problem, my friend,” he said. “It’s not the same for me. The colored folks around here have always known you, and Mary when she was alive, to be good people. You’ve paid honest wages for honest work, you treat people with common courtesy, you’ve always been willing to share with anyone in need. I’ll just say we’d all be happy to have you worship with us on a Sunday.
“But you know it don’t work both ways.” Here Wade raised his eyes, about to say something. Tom went on, “Oh, it was fine for us kids to run around together back then, but just think. I’ve known John Medlin as long as you have – he’s just about our age. He’s ‘John’ to you, but he’ll always be ‘Mr. Medlin’ to me. And I can spend my money with Preacher Ball, just like you, but I’d best not help myself to a cup of coffee. You and I both know old Will Perry has a set of white robes in his closet, and if that don’t trouble you, it sure sends shivers up my back. That’s just the way it is around here, and lots of folks want it to stay that way.
“So you got a decision to make. But I want you to know that, whichever way you go, I’ll always call you my friend and I’ll be around if you need me.”
Wade cleared his throat and pushed back from the table. He waved the coffee pot in Tom’s direction, but Tom shook his head.
“I got some errands to do in town. I’ll catch up with you soon,” he said, and was gone.
So Wade was left to do his thinking on his own, and that’s what he did all that day while he went about his business or sat by the radio to hear the farm report. By supper time, his thoughts were starting to run in circles and he determined to set the problem aside for a while. But when he went to bed that night, it was still on his mind, and he prayed for the Lord to provide His guidance. As he slipped into sleep, he thought he heard Mary say, “Wade Faulkner, you know the answer. Now you just do the right thing.”
Sometimes doing the right thing means not doing anything different at all. Wade made sure Tom knew that as far as he was concerned nothing had changed. Tom and Essie were as good as family, and that was that. When he ran into those good old boys at the store, he was just as cordial as he’d ever been and didn’t seem to notice their silent treatment. He kept on going to church on Sundays and Thursday evenings and even took on teaching a Sunday school class when the pastor asked him.
It would be hard to say if Wade changed any hearts or any lives, but he lived according to what seemed right, and people did take notice. When he died, no one said a word when Tom and his family came right into the church and took their seats on the front pew.
Julie Means Kane is an award-winning writer living in Hillsdale, New York. She has been a sous-chef, private investigator, back-to-the-lander, jeweler, teacher’s aide, newspaper manager, and mother of two. For thirty years, she provided management advice to businesses that ranged from a mom and pop shoe store to the Union Bank of Switzerland.
Her short story “I Remember You” has been selected for the First Place, Fiction and the President’s Choice awards by Winston-Salem Writers. Currently, she is working on a narrative history of the life and times of her grandfather, Gaston B. Means, arch-swindler and master liar. More than once she’s thought how similar the roles of consultant and swindler are — both require belief in oneself and the ability to instill confidence in others. Perhaps this apple didn’t fall far from the tree.